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Image: Tennessee State Capitol
Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee.Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

Tennessee Republican badly misstates the three-fifths compromise

Debating the importance of race and history is worthwhile. Defending the Constitution's three-fifths compromise is not.


As a rule, the national news tends not to focus too much attention on foolish comments from state legislators. With more than 7,000 Americans serving in state legislatures nationwide, there are simply too many officials saying too many things to even try to keep up.

But once in a while, an exception comes along.

In Tennessee yesterday, state lawmakers debated a "critical race theory" measure intended to limit what school teachers can say about the influence of institutional racism and privilege. During the proceedings, state Rep. Justin Lafferty (R) thought it'd be a good idea to share some of his thoughts about the Constitution's three-fifths compromise.

The Knoxville Republican argued that the Constitution's framers "specifically limited the number of representatives that would be available in the slaveholding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery — well before Abraham Lincoln, well before the Civil War."

As mind-numbing and painful as the rhetoric was, when Lafferty concluded his remarks, several Tennessee Republican lawmakers literally applauded, as if the argument had merit. As the New York Times explained, it did not:

The Three-Fifths Compromise, an agreement reached during the negotiations in 1787 to create the United States Constitution, found that, for the purposes of representation and taxation, only three-fifths of a state's enslaved people would be counted toward its total population. It is regarded as one of the most racist deals among the states during the country's founding.

And yet, more than 230 years later, some on the right apparently expect the public to believe that the three-fifths compromise was somehow a good thing.

Indeed, the ignorance apparently isn't limited to the Knoxville Republican and those who clapped in response to his nonsense. A Washington Post analysis added some contextual details:

In fact, if he looked closely, he would have seen a version of his claim during a similar debate in Colorado a few weeks ago. In that one, state Rep. Ron Hanks (R) claimed that "the Three-Fifths Compromise was an effort by non-slave states to reduce the amount of representation the slave states had. It was not impugning anybody's humanity." Or in 2019, when Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum (R) claimed that "the three-fifths vote was actually to eliminate the overwhelming influence the slave states would have in representative government."

If we wind the clock back a little further, Glenn Beck used similar rhetoric a decade ago.

Policymakers and influential political voices having a meaningful debate about the importance of race and history is worthwhile. But it's difficult to see how the debate is going to have value so long as some are still trying to defend the merits of the three-fifths compromise.